The Luminous and the Shady

I hope that this blog is what it set out to be, “A place to seek clarity on timeless issues and issues of the day.” Over the last ten years or so I’ve read at least one “classic” novel every year. I’m constantly amazed at the insights great minds of the distant past had, how well they presented those insights, and how applicable those insights are to today’s world.[i]

I’m currently reading Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables.” VOLUME IV, BOOK SEVENTH of the novel contains a passage that fits nicely among the messages I aim to convey.



Let us have compassion on the chastised. Alas! Who are we ourselves? Who am I who now address you? Who are you who are listening to me? And are you very sure that we have done nothing before we were born? The earth is not devoid of resemblance to a jail. Who knows whether man is not a recaptured offender against divine justice? Look closely at life. It is so made, that everywhere we feel the sense of punishment.

Are you what is called a happy man? Well! you are sad every day.

Each day has its own great grief or its little care. Yesterday you were trembling for a health that is dear to you, to-day you fear for your own; to-morrow it will be anxiety about money, the day after to-morrow the diatribe of a slanderer, the day after that, the misfortune of some friend; then the prevailing weather, then something that has been broken or lost, then a pleasure with which your conscience and your vertebral column reproach you; again, the course of public affairs. This without reckoning in the pains of the heart.

And so it goes on. One cloud is dispelled, another forms.

There is hardly one day out of a hundred which is wholly joyous and sunny. And you belong to that small class who are happy!

As for the rest of mankind, stagnating night rests upon them.

Thoughtful minds make but little use of the phrase: the fortunate and the unfortunate. In this world, evidently the vestibule of another, there are no fortunate.

The real human division is this: the luminous and the shady.

To diminish the number of the shady, to augment the number of the luminous,–that is the object. That is why we cry:

Education! science! To teach reading, means to light the fire; every syllable spelled out sparkles.

However, he who says light does not, necessarily, say joy.

People suffer in the light; excess burns. The flame is the enemy of the wing. To burn without ceasing to fly,–therein lies the marvel of genius.

When you shall have learned to know, and to love, you will still suffer. The day is born in tears. The luminous weep, if only over those in darkness.

[i] For a modern stab at a snippet of the issues addressed by Hugo, see “Life is suffering, so get your act together!

Slowing the “School-to-Prison Pipeline”—At What Cost?

A Classic Case of Leftist Blindness to Tradeoffs Causing More Harm Than Good

Like essentially all claims about causes and effects with respect to societal phenomena (no matter who makes such claims), what follows cannot be proved or disproved with certitude. With humility, therefore, what follows is a case for the claim that the leftist policies adopted by Broward County officials several years before the February 14, 2018, Parkland, Florida, school shooting (the “Shooting”) were a major contributing factor in creating an environment that substantially increased the likelihood of a school shooting in the county.

As I have often said,[i] societal problems have no solutions—only tradeoffs. In light of this reality, it is irresponsible for policymakers not to rigorously and as objectively as possible (1) identify the foreseeable negative consequences of every proposed policy and (2) assess the probability that a proposed policy will achieve less good than hoped and that the negative consequences will be greater than anticipated. After having faithfully done that analysis, the policy should be adopted only if the risk-adjusted value of positive consequences substantially exceeds the risk-adjusted value of foreseeable negative consequences. The policy should not be adopted if the net positive results is not a substantial improvement because policymakers should recognize that their duty is to act on behalf of the public and that their personal interests are unavoidably in conflict with the best interests of the public.

Let’s sort out why that is true. When the public determines something is “not right” (e.g., a disproportionate percentage of disadvantaged students wind up in the “school-to-prison pipeline”), the public demands that policymakers “do something” to make it better. Sadly, the default assumption of a majority of the public is that government can “make it better.” Insufficient regard (if any regard at all) is given to the possibility that every remedy has negative side effects and that often the side effects are worse than the disease. Politicians can gain popularity, accolades, campaign contributions, and reelections by “doing something”—even if it is unclear whether that “something” will do more good than harm. Sadly, the situation is worse than that. Politicians can gain the benefits of “doing something” even if it is clearly foreseeable that what they propose will do more harm than good. Far too many of them act anyway because the potential benefits to themselves of doing something are large, and the potential costs to themselves of doing nothing are also large. Setting aside the prevalence of corruption (which is why many policies and laws are made), contrary to what politicians say, the real rationale for many of our policies is that having palm leaves laid before your feet by jubilant crowds is much more gratifying than being run out of town on a rail.

The Broward County government’s initiatives leading up to the Shooting present a vivid example of the kinds of problems created by policies that (1) are primarily informed by myopic, nearly exclusive attention to leftist priorities (in this case, lowering the number of students who enter the school-to-prison pipeline—a worthy goal in search of a workable “solution” that does more good than harm) and (2) pay insufficient attention to the knowable (much less the possibility of unforeseeable) negative consequences of the policies (i.e., the tradeoffs).[ii] By clinging to such myopic focus on the good they hoped to achieve, leftist policymakers became blinded to the harm their policies were likely to cause. In particular, this post sorts out why Broward’s policies are yet another tragic example of such leftist blindness leading to practices that do more harm than good.


Prior to 2011, government officials in some Florida counties were concerned that if they continued to enforce the duly adopted criminal laws, then they would continue to see a large number and a disproportionate percentage of non-white students being sent from schools to prison.[iii] (See Author’s Note.[iv]) This phenomenon was dubbed “the school-to-prison pipeline.” Dade County Public Schools officials, in cooperation with the Miami police and other officials, adopted a policy of not reporting certain crimes to the police. It is fair to say that Miami-Dade became a “sanctuary city” for high school criminals.

With their touted 60 percent[v] “reduction in juvenile delinquencies,”[vi] the sanctuary polices earned Miami-Dade officials kudos from the mainstream media, rights activists, and leftists in the general public. Sanctuary policies were a cause for boastingv by the school district and police. Perhaps more important to the government officials’ future prospects, the initiative signaled their fealty to one of President Obama’s major initiatives.[vii] In short, the government officials were benefiting from adopting the new policies irrespective of the net effects that such policies were creating. One effect was that fewer student criminals were being introduced into the criminal justice system.[viii] (As discussed below, this effect is both good and bad, a reality apparently lost on the policy’s makers.)

The government officials in Broward County, which at the time was ranked No. 1[ix] at “pipelining” students into the state’s juvenile justice system, were surely not only embarrassed by that No. 1 ranking but also were surely jealous of the kudos that Miami-Dade officials were receiving in the press and from the glitterati. So, Broward County officials jumped onto the bandwagon. According to NPR, [x] in 2013, “Under a new program adopted by the Broward County School District, non-violent misdemeanors—even those that involve alcohol, marijuana or drug paraphernalia—will now be handled by the schools instead of the police.”

Although the Broward County schools, police, and prosecutors appear to have implemented the policies earlier, in October 2016 the “Collaborative Agreement on School Discipline” was formally adopted by the school board and a long list of police departments, government agencies, and even a judge.

The ostensible concern for adopting the sanctuary policies was to improve the wellbeing of the kinds of students who had previously been dumped into the school-to-prison pipeline. Helping those students was certainly a noble aspiration. When it comes to helping students stay out of the school-to-prison pipeline, there are two basic approaches: (1) enable/cause students to become the kind of people who do not intentionally inflict harm on others or (2) lower the penalties on (or establish new “get out of jail free” cards for) students who intentionally inflict harm on others. President Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper”[xi] program focused on helping kids get on the right path; i.e., the program used the first approach.[xii] However, President Obama’s “Executive Order — White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans” called on schools not to exercise “methods that result in disparate use of disciplinary tools,” and the Broward County policies were a manifestation of the second approach. (As discussed below, Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper program and his Executive Order undermine each other to some degree.)

When the Broward County program was adopted, the foreseeable and likely harm (up to and including people being wounded or killed by gunfire) that the policies would or might inflict on all students (including students who the new policies were ostensibly designed to help) was given short shrift or ignored altogether. Those tradeoffs were also (perhaps intentionally) obscured by public pronouncements attempting to justify the program. (I suspect that most officials were blind to the negative consequences of their actions; i.e., they were incompetent.) Those officials who were aware of but intentionally imposed those risks in an effort to improve their own standing in the leftist community or to shore up their self-esteem or reelection prospects—which was surely the case with respect to some—are truly damnable.


Without active, persistent, and effective moral education (which is nearly the opposite of postmodern “moral” indoctrination[xiii]) and discipline in schools, morality and discipline will continue to decrease. Having good morals and acting civilly are essential for a good life.[xiv] Students who get little or poor moral instruction (or possibly instruction to be immoral) and discipline at home are disproportionately helped by effective moral instruction and discipline at school. Feelings of sorrow for children whose homes instill insufficient or poor moral instruction or discipline are a hallmark of good people. When, however,  those justifiable and noble feelings result in a person’s support for policies that reduce the likelihood of those children getting such instruction (and thereby limiting the possibility of their flourishing), those feelings make matters worse for the people who supporters believed the policies would help. Sadly, that is often, if not usually, the case.

One of the most important life lessons a child can be taught is how to be a person who exhibits good morals, self-discipline, and likeability[xv] (“good people” for short—regardless of what caused them to be good). The presence of moral and disciplined people in schools is especially important where the potency of peer pressure is at its maximum. Good people want to avoid inflicting harm on others. Hanging around people who provide positive examples is salutary. More important, hanging around people who either want to inflict harm on others or are sanguine to inflicting harm on others as long as the perpetrator benefits instill negative attitudes and behaviors in fellow students—especially in those who struggle to fit in. Consequently, a higher portion of “not good” people in a student body means that bad influences are more prevalent. If crime pays, even erstwhile good kids are tempted to turn bad.

That effectively disciplining bad behavior reduces bad behavior and that lack of discipline increases bad behavior are undisputable. When potential gains from crime are not sufficiently offset by general and effective moral disapprobation from the community and/or an appropriately high prospect of sufficient punishment, there will be more crime in schools. Absent sound moral instruction, members of the student community are less likely to know how to distinguish which moral beliefs should be shunned or encouraged. Worse, if policies are adopted that imply that crimes and other uncivil behaviors should be tolerated instead of met with deserving punishment or moral disapprobation, the wrong moral lessons are taught to all the students. These realities appear to have been discounted or ignored by the Broward County officials in adopting and implementing their policies.

It is not that policymakers were oblivious to all of the realities described above. At the time of the adoption of the new policies, Michaelle Valbrun-Pope, executive director of Student Support Initiatives for Broward County Public Schools, said, “We’re not compromising school safety. We’re really saving the lives of kids.”[xvi] This statement reveals that the executive director was aware of the arguments that making the campus more accommodating and profitable for criminals would cause overall school safety to decline. No objective and reasonable observer would doubt that if the negative consequences of crime are lowered or criminals are not removed from schools, then overall school safety will be compromised. It is also true that prisons are often both dangerous and the opposite of rehabiliatory and that keeping student criminals out of the prison system could save the lives of some student criminals. Moreover, to the extent that a criminal student’s school has programs that enable erstwhile criminal students to eschew criminality, those programs cannot be administered to former students in prison. So, an honest and accurate statement by the executive director would have been “We’re compromising school safety for most of the students, but we are very likely saving the lives of some students.” Rather than being honest, she offered up the doublespeak quoted above. Because the mainstream media is simpatico with such leftist goals, it lets leftist government officials get away with this kind of doublespeak.

On another occasion, the executive director said, “The first step was to determine what that bad number — 1,062 school-related arrests — actually meant. Mostly (in fact, in about 70 percent of cases), the behavior was a misdemeanor. These are lower-level, nonviolent offenses that nonetheless funneled scores of students into the justice system.”[xvii] This doublespeak, however, ignores the more important fact that all misdemeanors are both crimes and uncivil; i.e., toleration of them conveys bad influences on all the students. Worse, these crimes are often gateway crimes to felonies. More important, she obviously wanted her listeners to focus on the 70 percent number instead of the 30 percent of crimes that are violent misdemeanors (or perhaps felonies—she got away with being unclear on that point) and will go unpunished under the new policy.

One might be comforted by the fact that the policy only requires misdemeanors not be reported to the police. That comfort, however, would not be well founded: “The [school board, police, prosecutors, public defenders, and judicial system representatives] identified 12 misdemeanor offenses, including judgment-call charges, like disorderly conduct, and more concrete behavior, like vandalism and possession of marijuana.”[xviii] Belying what this pronouncement said, over time, school officials and others involved came to the conclusion that limiting the scope of the reporting exemptions just to nonviolent misdemeanors would result in an increase in the number of non-white, non-Asian students who would enter the school-to-prison pipeline. In short, felonies were eventually tolerated and not reported to the police.[xix]

Initially, with increased tolerance and increasingly aggressive non-reporting of criminal behavior, the statistical goals that the officials wanted were achieved. As a consequence, more criminals were roaming the schools, and—as should have been expected—the criminals tested the limits of the leniency. If the fun and gain of lawlessness is not sufficiently punished, then why quit? Why not test the limits? The number of crimes that were more serious than the listed misdemeanors escalated, yet school officials did not dare do anything that would cause their “favorable” statistics to “worsen.” To keep their reported crimes from escalating, tolerance begat a need for further tolerance of more serious offenses. For example, another Broward County school, Dillard High School, did essentially nothing after 14-year-old Mariah Green was violently beaten by a gang of girls (caught on this video). About the school’s handling of the beat down, a Broward school board member said that “more aggressive action should have been taken.”[xx] Of course, reporting the crime to the police was not in the best interest of the officials involved. So, despite the girl’s mother’s fruitless complaints to the administration on multiple occasions about the tolerated mistreatment of her daughter that culminated in the gang beating she suffered, the parents had to sue the district for relief. After quite a bit of searching, I could find no report of how that case was resolved. A reasonable assumption is that the school district, upon a condition of confidentiality, paid big bucks (funded by taxpayers whose children are bearing the brunt of the policies) so that the district could continue it’s flawed, self-serving agenda.

That the policies were self-serving and illogical was made clear by the rest of the Broward County school board member’s comment about the incident. Apparently, the school hallway beatdown was not reported because it was considered a mutual combat situation. (As if neither party to the fight started the fight! How convenient a “solution” to the potential reporting problem.) “‘If what we did was mutual combat, it obviously didn’t work,’ Osgood said. ‘So now we’re looking at it from a bullying perspective.’”[xxi] You see, students in a “good” society must endure beatings (and eventual shootings) in order to serve the goal of avoiding disproportionate incarceration (as if proportional incarceration is objectively appropriate despite the disproportionate level of criminality by different groups of students). On the other hand, “bullying” cannot be tolerated because so many leftists hate bullying (even though much bullying is neither violent nor illegal). Perversely, it serves the board members’ purposes to go easy on criminality but hard on bullying—so that is what they do. The key is that under their policies, bullying need not be reported to the police even if the bullying is also illegal.

Can anyone prove that the Shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was an ineluctable consequence of the Broward County policies discussed above? No. However, one should realize not only that mass indiscriminate shootings are on the rise in America but also that mass shootings in public places against unknown strangers have become a big deal since around 1960.[xxii] It is fair and reasonable to believe that tolerance of and leftist attitudes and excuses for immorality and criminality in schools coupled with vastly less traditional moral instruction and discipline are contributing factors as to why we are now experiencing more indiscriminate mass school shootings.


It should be noted that the decision not to follow the law was a clear usurpation of legislative powers not granted to any of the people involved in the adoption of the new policy. However, no other government body whose duty is to hold their fellow government bodies accountable took any effective action to prevent or reverse this unlawful usurpation of legislative power by non-legislators. In fact, some of the supposed watchdogs were in on the action. Why? The simple fact is that government officials get much more favorable press when they adopt leftist policies and poses. Worse, they get unmitigated grief and ridicule from the mainstream media if they do not toe the leftist line. Far too many politicians simply do not have the courage to do their jobs and risk being falsely labeled as racists or worse. They meekly let these Titanic policies sail on.

UPDATE May 23, 2018. Here is some sad confirmation of some of the things I said above:  “Schools’ culture of tolerance lets students like Nikolas Cruz slide.”

[i] For example, see “Solutions.” I owe much to Thomas Sowell for bringing this reality to my attention.

[ii] The champion of this approach was FDR. He explained, “It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” With this comment, FDR revealed his obliviousness to the negative consequences of “regime uncertainty” that such an approach causes. This approach to governance was a prime contributor to the length of the Great Depression.

[iii] Broward County District Superintendent Robert Runcie observed, “We saw huge differentials in achievement gaps among white, black and Hispanics students. . . . Black males in particular were in probably some of the worst situation in this district.” State Judge Elijah Williams said, “Although African-American kids make up just 40 percent of the school district’s population, they account for 71 percent of the school arrests. . . . We had the highest arrest rate in the state of Florida. And coincidentally, we had the highest drop-out rate,” Id.

See also the third “WHEREAS” clause of the “Collaborative Agreement on School Discipline.”

[iv] AUTHOR’S NOTE ON “DISPARATE IMPACT”: Sorting out the fallacies of and problems created by using “disparate impact” as a justification for policies must await another blog post. Suffice it to say that if any subset of a society distinguishes itself from the rest of society’s subsets by being the only subset that believes poking people in the eye with sticks is cool rather than abominable, then any law that punishes eye poking with sticks will necessarily only affect that one subset; i.e., it would have an extremely disproportionate impact on “eye pokers.” Nevertheless, a law that punished eye pokers would be both rational and salutary. Reasonable steps should be taken to induce members of that subset to change their views about the uncivil practice. Punishment of the perpetrators of such uncivil acts (e.g., putting bars between perpetrators and their potential victims) could be both one of many inducements to achieve that worthy goal and a way to protect their potential victims.

[v]MIAMI-DADE SCHOOLS POLICE REDUCES JUVENILE DELINQUENCY BY 60 PERCENT.” (Of course, despite the public announcement’s claim, no 60 percent reduction in delinquencies actually occurred; there was a reduction in the number of reported juvenile delinquencies—surely delinquencies increased as a result of the lessening of the negative consequences for committing the crimes.)

[vi] Leftists appear to understand that incentives matter when it comes to policies that advance leftist agendas. For example, they argue that if the cost of cigarettes, sugary drinks, or carbon dioxide emissions is increased with new taxes, then fewer of those things will be produced. Conversely, if the costs of those items are reduced by repealing the taxes, then the producers’ and consumers’ cost-benefit analyses will cause them to produce/buy more of the items. Yet, these same leftists appear blind to the fact that, in general, reducing the cost of crimes will increase the production of crimes.

[vii] See “Executive Order — White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans.” “Obama wants to stop ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ for minorities.”

[viii] This is not to say that all the consequences of sending fewer students into the school-to-prison pipeline are negative. For the fraction of the students who were saved from becoming hardened criminals, the effect of the policy was beneficial. The fact that the new policy shields actual criminals (many, if not most of whom will continue their criminal ways in school and afterwards) from the duly adopted laws is mentioned to clarify what is actually happening, and to highlight the negative consequences that are being ignored, obscured, and suppressed by the government officials.

[ix]These districts fought the school-to-prison pipeline. Can Pittsburgh learn their lessons?

[x]Fla. School District Trying To Curb School-To-Prison Pipeline.”

[xi] See “My Brother’s Keeper.”

[xii] Many anecdotal success stories have been attributed to the multibillion-dollar My Brother’s Keeper initiative. See “My Brother’s Keeper—2016 Progress Report.” I certainly wish the program well, but I fear that it will suffer the same lack of success that the Head Start Program did. See “Can We Be Hard-Headed About Preschool? A Look at Head Start,” a Brookings Institution report. Whether My Brother’s Keeper is a net positive use of the nation’s resources or not, the people who spearheaded and run it will benefit, so the program will likely persist (consuming funds that could be used on better programs) regardless.

[xiii]Morality is personal – Believing ethics to be relative, postmodernists subject morality to personal opinion. They define morality as each person’s private code of ethics without the need to follow traditional values and rules.

[xiv] Victor Hugo may have explained this best in Les Misérables. An elderly Jean Valjean was attacked from behind by a young, strong gang member. An instant later, Valjean had the thug pinned to the ground. Valjean then explained why the thug was on the wrong path. Click HERE. Start reading at “How old are you?”

[xv] As to how a parent should do that, see “Jordan Peterson – How To Raise Your Children.”

[xvi] See “Did the Progressive ‘Broward County Solution’ Cost 17 Student Lives?

[xvii] See endnote ix.

[xviii] Id.

[xix]At least three students showed school administrators Cruz’s near-constant messages threatening to kill them — e.g., ‘I am going to enjoy seeing you down on the grass,’ ‘Im going to watch ypu bleed,’ ‘iam going to shoot you dead.’ . . . Threatening to kill someone is a felony.”

[xx]Attorney files notice to sue in Dillard bullying attack.”

[xxi] Id.

[xxii]Mass Shootings in America: A Historical Review.” This report, however, should be tempered by “Are Mass Shootings Becoming More Frequent?” For additional context see “Dead Wrong® with Johan Norberg – School Shootings: Really Increasing?”

Crime, Punishment, and Fairness

Let’s sort out whether it is a good idea for society to punish people for crimes despite the fact that their environments, not their innate selves, caused them to be criminals. This is an important and topical question because the idea that crimes should be punished has come under withering attacks by leftists. Whether those attacks are propitious is relevant to important issues surrounding the recent Florida school shooting.

Note: For a felony to be committed, the perpetrator must have mens rea (a “guilty mind”), “the mental element of a person’s intention to commit a crime or knowledge that one’s action or lack of action would cause a crime to be committed.”[i] Because of this, an act that would otherwise be a crime (e.g., shooting someone) is not a crime if the act was done without mens rea (e.g., it was done in self-defense or by accident).

A core concept of criminal justice systems is that punishing people who intentionally do serious harm to others is advantageous to society. Punishment can be justified by combinations of the following goals: (1) to deter would-be perpetrators from committing future crimes by increasing the costs to them of committing crimes, (2) to reduce the probability that future crimes will be inflicted on innocent members of society by putting bars between the criminal and society, (3) to rehabilitate the criminal into an upright citizen, (4) to establish and preserve the “rule of law” or other propitious norms, (5) to achieve justice, and (6) to obtain warranted vengeance.

An exception to the general rule is that it should not apply to children and the insane. A widely accepted rationale for this exception is described in the McNaughton rule, “that every man is to be presumed to be sane, and . . . that to establish a defense on the ground of insanity, it must be clearly proved that, at the time of the committing of the act, the party accused was laboring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong.”

First note that if a person does not have the mental capacity to know the difference between right and wrong, she is not capable of having the mens rea to commit a crime. Also important, it would serve no more purpose to punish a lion for killing an antelope than it would to punish an insane person for committing a crime. Neither can comprehend either the crime or the punishment, and punishing either would have no effect on other lions or insane people, i.e., it would accomplish nothing.

For multiple reasons, the insanity defense against criminal punishment is long established, venerated, and wise.

Leftists have been inventing and advancing many other new defenses to criminality that have not been time tested, are of dubious validity, and need to be sorted out. As is usual for leftist ideas, they myopically focus on something they (often correctly) identify as a problem, with apparent obliviousness to the serious and unavoidable negative consequences of the proposed “fix” for the problem. The problem with this approach to problem solving was perhaps best described by the great Thomas Sowell, who said:

The ideal of impartiality in the law, exemplified by the statues of Justice blindfolded, implies that particular results for particular individuals and groups are to be disregarded when dispensing justice. It is precisely this conception of justice—at the heart of the American revolution—that is being disregarded. As was aptly said:

The blindfolded Goddess of Justice has been encouraged to peek and she now says, with the jurists of the ancient regime, “First tell me who you are and then I’ll tell you what your rights are.” [Citation omitted.]

In politics, the great non-sequitur of our time is that 1) things are not right and that 2) the government should make them right.[ii]

Just because something is not right, it does not mean that there is an action the government could take to ameliorate the problem without creating even greater problems elsewhere. The constant demands by leftists for politicians to “DO SOMETHING!” cause politicians constantly to do things that cause more harm than good.

Out of valid and genuine concern for the harm “the system” does to people who get caught up in the criminal justice system, many leftists now demand that politicians ignore criminality if the perpetrator’s intent is not attributable to her innate evil, but rather to the bad environment in which the otherwise good person found herself through no fault of her own. It is as if it were the environment that caused the mens rea of the crime, not the person. That could well be true in some instances (at least to the extent that a person might never have considered committing a crime had they been born with more advantages). The disadvantages of being born into a bad situation are certainly unfair in some cosmic sense. By the same token, it is certainly unfair in some cosmic sense that some people are born good-looking, intelligent, physically fit, and coordinated; with leadership ability, creativity, and insight; and with good communication and people skills. While some people have a good measure of all those things, others have little of any of them. There is clearly something wrong with this picture, but it is a true picture of reality. But, again, the fact that there is a real problem does not mean there are solutions to it that will not also make matters worse for everyone, with the possible exception of the criminal.

In particular, there is no reason to believe that any governmental effort to “fix” those kinds of cosmic injustices would not do more harm to the vast majority of people in the world than if the U.S. government did nothing about them.[iii]


SidebarYet leftists quixotically forged ahead with supposed fixes to these cosmic injustices. The basic rationale appears to be a jumbled combination of (1) It is unfair to punish someone who did something evil only because she a victim of an environment that “made her do it,” and (2) To punish someone upon whom the cosmos has bestowed great disadvantages is adding insult to injury, and is unfair.

The arguments advanced to “fix” the problems did not win the day in the court of popular opinion. In no small part that was because the people who would suffer the negative consequences of the supposed fixes felt no responsibility for the environment disadvantaged people found themselves in. So leftists resorted to dreaming up theories and accumulating plausible “facts” to support propositions that recharacterize cosmic injustice into something inflicted on “the oppressed” not by the cosmos, but rather by current-day “oppressors,” such as “the patriarchy,” the “white privilege” of privileged white people, the “systemic racism” of a system of the privileged, by the privileged, and for the privileged (which is everyone other than the oppressed), and many similar figments of their imagination.

Rather than contest all that here, let’s accept the premise that much crime is not the fault of the criminal (it is the fault of the environment in which the criminal happens to reside or the fault of oppressors) and sort out its policy implications. The policy implications leftists typically draw from that premise are:

  1. Add more obstacles, tripwires, and safeguards to judicial processes that make prosecutions more difficult and reduce the odds that a criminal will be convicted for her crimes (e.g., Miranda warnings, or expansion of the exclusionary rule that prevent juries from hearing all the relevant facts of a case);
  2. Decriminalize more and more erstwhile criminal behaviors;
  3. Protect criminals from being caught (sanctuary cities); and
  4. Do not report crimes (except for the ones “non-oppressed” people are more apt to commit) so as to make it appear that the leftist policies are reducing crime by and on “oppressed” people.

In addition to ignoring their unintended negative consequences on society at large, these policies ignore the harm they do to the people they are ostensibly trying to help. The irony is that the whole policy agenda is predicated on the idea that it is the environment that is the root of the problem. One might think that leftists would want to improve the environment of disadvantaged communities in ways that would cause people in those communities to be less disadvantaged (“oppressed”). Anyone who thinks that needs to think again. Improving the environments of disadvantaged communities is not what social (cosmic) justice warrior policies do; they make the environment in disadvantaged communities worse.

Peer pressure has a huge influence on most school students. The more bad attitudes and behaviors are tolerated in schools, the larger the number and higher percentages of peers who are criminals there will be in schools. That means more people exerting pressure to adopt self-defeating ideas and attitudes on all the students. Worse, if the positive consequences of committing crimes are greater than the negative consequences, the incentives to commit crimes are strong. Even worse, in such an environment it can appear to impressionable youths that they are suckers if they do not cash in on the benefits of crime, given the slight negative consequences of committing crimes. General disrespect for authority and lawlessness makes more difficult the education of student on the benefits of good morals. In the presence of excess tolerance of bad behavior in a school environment, students will likely view the lessons about good behavior as preposterous. If there is easy gain with crime, but only hard work, harassment, and a slim hope of payoff if one is good and applies oneself to studying, easy gain will win most of the time.

Such lawlessness spills out into the streets and results in far more people being killed in disadvantaged neighborhoods than in school shooting anywhere. The percentage of lives that do not thrive as a result of the environment that leftist policies create is also staggering.

It is truly sad that when the criminal laws are enforced that so many already disadvantaged students find themselves in the “school-to-prison pipeline.” It is even sadder that the percentage of those students who are black and Hispanic is disproportionately high. Sadder still is the fact that leaving those kids in school will make the proportion of black and Hispanic children entering that pipeline, or adopting ideas and attitudes that will prevent them from flourishing, or wounded or killed at school, much higher than it otherwise would be.

This post and my earlier post, “Prelude To A  Post About The  Florida Shooting – A Growing Leftist Trend,” have laid the groundwork for a case in point that will be explored in my next post about the Florida school shooting.

[i] See “Mens rea.”

[ii] See “The Quest for Cosmic Justice,” page 186.

[iii] See “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut; the movie, Harrison Bergeron; or a condensed version, “2081 HARRISON BERGERON,” a video by an organization I helped make possible.

A Follow Up to “Trump’s Tariffs”

This gem showed up in my inbox this morning: “President Trump’s Predecessors Learned about Steel Tariffs the Hard Way” by Mark Perry.

“the Peterson Institute for International Economics found that tariffs on specialty steel in the 1980s resulted in annual consumers losses of $1 million for every US steel job saved ($2.26 million in today’s dollars). Not.A.Good.Trade-Off.”

Had Bush caused taxpayers to give $500,000 a year to each steel worker whose job was was jeopardized by cheap foreign specialty steel being “dumped” on America, those workers, and all Americans who buy things made of steel (read, “everyone”), would be wealthier today.

Especially hard it by those tariffs were all those workers in these industries:

  1. Manufacturers and retailers of goods that contained steel whose prices had to be higher than necessary because the tariffs increase the cost of its materials;
  2. Manufacturers and retailers of non-steel goods or services that would have had higher sales because their customers would have had extra money because the stuff they purchased that contained steel was cheaper due to foreign steel;
  3. Importers, shippers, and loading dock operators;
  4. Bankers that specialized in international credit; and
  5. Farmers and other exporters whose exports will be lessened by retaliatory import tariffs by foreign governments.

The number of workers that were negatively affected by the higher than necessary steel prices was far greater than the the number of workers employed in the steel industry. And, of course, Americans paid more than necessary for the goods they purchased. As reflected in the study quoted above, the sum of these negatives were 2.6 times as large as the benefits to steel workers.

As mentioned in the prior post, perhaps more significant is the number of people who would have filled jobs that were not created in America because of the tariffs. For example, consider the people who would have been employed at manufacturing plants that would have been built in America had the steel tariffs not made it economically advantageous to build those plants in countries that did not impose tariffs on steel.

Trump’s tariffs may be good for Trump (politically or otherwise) and U.S. steel and aluminum manufacturers, but they are really bad for everyone else, especially American workers.*

* For a discussion of why fewer American jobs causes wages to be lower see: “Tax Cuts and Employee Compensation.”

Trump’s Tariffs—A Sad Realization

“Make America Great Again.” Americans’ visions as to what a “great America” would be vary “bigly.” In the interest of sorting out the variations in those visions, please forgive the following overstatement of the differences:

Some Americans envision a safe and caring place where everyone who happens to be here has equal access to all the goods and services the country produces; everyone has equal societal status and everyone is flourishing in becoming the person they dreamed of being; no one has to work too hard (or not at all if they did not want to work); and omniscient, benevolent, efficient, and effective government officials have unlimited authority to do good.

Other Americans envision a nation in a rough and tumble, dog eat dog world in which citizens have equal legal rights regardless of their race, religion, color, creed, or national origin, and equal opportunities to pursue happiness; and the nation is run by flawed, but constitutionally checked government officeholders who live up to their oaths to “preserve, protect, and defend” the Constitution as it was originally conceived—except for duly adopted amendments.[i]

Most Americans, however, envision an America with various combinations of milder versions of ideas from both extremes.

In rough approximation, many people projected onto Bernie Sanders the ideals of the first set of Americans described above, and other people projected onto Trump the ideals expressed in the second set. Because he had a long history as a senator, one could make some reasonable predictions as to what Bernie’s true political and economic beliefs and policy goals would be. What Trump’s true political and economic beliefs and policy prescriptions would be were (in possible contrast to what he said on the campaign trail because he thought his voting base wanted to hear those things) were a matter of speculation and credulity.

During the presidential campaign I would often ask Trump supporters a version of this question: How, given that 1) running a business is astoundingly different than running a government; and 2) Trump had no track record in public office to reveal what he believed, could anyone have any confidence that Trump has the beliefs he says he has or that he will know what economic policies would make America great again (or what his vision of a “great America” is). The answers I got were variations of the following theme:

Trump’s success in business shows that he is smart, a great leader, and good at identifying and recruiting talented people. With those characteristics he will surround himself with great people to advise him on issues outside his expertise and America will be great again before you know it.

When I followed up noting that there is little reason to believe that someone who has a nose for distinguishing between good and bad business people will also have a nose for distinguishing between good and bad government advisers with respect to issues about which he knows little (e.g., how would he discern the difference between a good economist and an economist who is willing to say whatever she must say in order to get a high level government job), I got either gibberish or crickets.

We now know much about Trump’s ability to pick advisers. The turnover rate for White House staff in the first year was 34%.[ii] That rate is both bad in absolute terms and is higher by far than the previous five presidents. Trump’s record at identifying the right people for government posts is spotty at best—though I would concede that he has picked some excellent policy advisers and judges.

All that would not be particularly important if, despite his hiring flubs, he was consistently getting great policy advice. March 1, 2018 was a sad day in American history on that count. On that day Trump revealed that he is either a consummate crony capitalist (read, “corrupt”), or he has a populist’s (read “clueless”) understanding of foreign trade and tariffs. [iii] That might not be so bad if trade policy was not so critical to a prosperous economy—and a prosperous economy was not so essential to middle and lower income wage growth, but it is—on both counts.[iv]

While scientific consensus is an oxymoron,[v] essentially every economist believes[vi] that free trade (as opposed to unfree trade, including “fair trade”) is the best policy. In other words, tariffs are bad for a country’s economy, jobs, and wage increases, regardless of the tariffs imposed by other countries on their imports.[vii] In short, tariffs do help the protected companies and their employees and investors, and the extra profit generated by those companies adds to the wealth of the nation. Typically politicians benefit politically when they impose tariffs. The sum of negative effects of tariffs on everyone in the country, however, is far greater than the sum of the positives that are created by tariffs.

The reasons why people, sadly those people include a few economists, were explained by Frederic Bastiat over 150 years ago:

“In the economic sphere an act, a habit, an institution, a law produces not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we foresee them.

There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.”

When it comes to free trade most people only notice (“see”) the initial effect of jobs being saved in the protected industry. It appears that only economists are able to foresee the many more jobs that will never be created because of a tariff.

While I have already blogged about one of the most pernicious negative consequences of tariffs,[viii] the reasons why tariffs are net harmful to the country are too numerous and varied to survey here. To give you a glimpse, however, consider the following realities:

  1. A little under half of U.S. imports are raw materials or component parts of items manufactured in America. Higher costs attributable to more expensive materials and parts makes those manufacturers less competitive in the world market, and increases costs of goods to its customers.
  2. When U.S. consumers must pay more than is necessary for what they buy, they can afford to buy fewer things (i.e., their standard of living is less than it needs to be).
  3. Consumers buying less means U.S. retailers will make fewer sales, which means fewer jobs, which means slower wage growth.
  4. Foreign countries will retaliate by raising their tariffs or increasing their subsidies,[ix] which results in non-protected U.S. companies becoming even less competitive than they were before the tariffs were imposed due to higher costs and poorer customers.
  5. Once an administration reveals that it will grant companies that are sufficiently supplicant (read, “willing to help the president”), thereby making it harder for every other company in the country to profit and grow, it sends a signal to investors and business people that the future business environments is subject to sudden, unpredictable, and significant negative changes based on the unpredictable feelings of the president from day to day. This increase in the risk of the government doing things slows investment and business growth due to “Regime Uncertainty.”[x] The economy was booming as Trump took step after step that led people to believe that Trump was intent on making investing in America safer and more profitable. The imposition of tariffs signals to business people, “don’t be so sure of what the administration will do next.” That fact alone will cause investment and growth to be less than it otherwise would be.

We now have a clearer picture of Trump’s administration with respect to trade, and it is not a pretty picture. We can hope that with these new tariffs Trump has satisfied his urge to “do something about trade deficits” (which is another populist banality) and that all the other pro-business things he has done and will do (which are many and important) will offset a noticeable amount of the harm he has done by the imposition of tariffs. What we now know for sure, however, is that the economic engine will not be running on all cylinders so long as these tariffs remain.

[i] See, “Two Paths for America.”

[ii] See, “Trump Staff Turnover Hits 34%—a First Year Presidential Record.”

[iii] While I see no reason to believe that nothing given or promised to Trump by the aluminum and steel industries to get this deal, I do see a reason to believe that Trump thought it was in his personal best interest to get the publicity for having protected those industries from competition (it was a follow through on a campaign promise). That benefit alone put Trump in a conflict of interest that he exploited using other people’s money for his personal gain. On the other hand, there is little reason to believe that he is any less clueless than the average American about the net harm those tariffs will inflict on all Americans. He probably (mistakenly) believes the deal’s benefits to him personally were minuscule compared to the benefits he bestowed on America. If he were good at picking economic advisers, he could have avoided all of the negatives consequences of his tariffs.

Also see, “The Swamp Is Alive! It Is Alive!

[iv] See, “Tax Cuts and Employee Compensation.”

[v] See, “For Earth Day: Michael Crichton explains why there is “no such thing as consensus science””

[vi] See, “Economists Actually Agree on This: The Wisdom of Free Trade,” and “China threatens to retaliate against US metals tariffs.”

[vii] See, “2018 Economic Report of the President offers both insight and obfuscation on trade.”

[viii] See, “Tariffs Transfer Wealth From the Poor To The Rich.”

[ix] See, “The Latest: EU promises retaliation to Trump tariff plan.”

[x] See, In “Regime Uncertainty — Why the Great Depression Lasted So Long and Why Prosperity Resumed after the War,” Robert Higgs noted: “the willingness of businesspeople to invest requires a sufficiently healthy state of “business confidence….”